The Banality of Evil
Nick Cassavetes Tells the Tale of Jesse James Hollywood
By Cole Smithey
Here's a different take on the docudrama format. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook") dives headfirst into the true story of a group of Southern California rich kids who goofed their way into the crime of kidnapping during the August of 2000. With a dream cast of the brightest actors of the day, Cassavetes creates a movie that feels like you're watching an actual group of apathetic kids riding down a progressively steeper incline in an unmanned vehicle. The "alpha dog" of the film's title is bully drug-dealer Johnny Truelove (based on the real life Jesse James Hollywood) whose outsized ego gets taken down a peg by Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a local junkie who aggressively refuses to pony up the $1000 he owes Jesse. Johnny (Emile Hirsch) haphazardly kidnaps Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). He has the immature kid spirited away from the San Fernando Valley to Palm Springs thinking Jake will automatically pay up. As days pass everyone but Johnny and his indebted lackey Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) underestimate the depth of the imminent trouble ahead.
The fin de siècle So Cal milieu of white teen thugs is an exasperating phenomenon that eluded director Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County USA") in her spastic film "Havoc" due to some gross miscasting and an exploitative script that banked on shock-value over narrative depth. Cassavetes avoids these transparent land mines by exploring the reality of the film’s unsupervised teens while intercutting documentary-styled interviews with parents of the appearent protagonist (Zack) and the story's prime antagonist (Johnny).
Bruce Willis gives a believably irreverent performance as Johnny’s criminally savvy dad Sonny. His character’s involvement in the story informs much of the subtext of Johnny’s narcissistic behavior. Willis, who made a splash in a similarly minor but crucial role in last year’s "Fast Food Nation," strikes a perfect balance of deception and cruelty that opens up a place for Johnny’s lurking violence to resonate from. For her part as Olivia Mazursky, Jake and Zack’s violated mother, Sharon Stone daringly exposes intellectual and emotional weaknesses that are devastating to behold. Stone’s direct-to-camera monologue near the end of the movie is a breathtaking zinger of humility that puts a lump in your throat while contextualizing the aftermath of her son’s crisis. It also shows heretofore-unseen acting chops that presently put Sharon Stone in a class with the likes of Meryl Streep.
After the kidnapping occurs, Cassavetes begins time-stamping scenes and cataloging with subtitles incidental witnesses whose testimony will later expose the abduction that goes largely unnoticed in the unsupervised palatial house of Johnny’s spoiled slacker friend Frankie (played with understated zeal by Justin Timberlake). The geeky and likable Zack gets his first taste of teen debauchery at a lively party where he becomes an honored guest. Two bikini-clad girls seduce Zack in Frankie’s swimming pool at night. The kidnap victim gets enough sexual distraction from his subversively doomed circumstances that he tells Johnny that he's there of his own free will. Zack’s naive self-deception backfires when Johnny tests the limits of his dominion over Elvis.
"Alpha Dog" is a topical docudrama that errs on the side of dramatic license. Hirsch's Johnny Truelove is impressive for his ferocious skill at dominating those around him. His humiliation and intimidation tactics makes Dick Cheney look like a rank amateur. Emile Hirsch’s smallish stature adds to Johnny’s Napoleonic complex that permeates the story. It provides an undertow of subtext that lingers in the viewer’s mind. Nick Cassavetes was allowed access to legal files from prosecuting attorneys with the idea that giving greater exposure to the story might aid in capturing Johnny Truelove, who until recently was still at large. His four accomplices were convicted not long after the incident occurred. As such, the movie comes with an added amount of social baggage and a willingness on Cassavetes’s part to take responsibility for a film that could set off a firestorm of legal battles for him personally. There is always another alpha dog waiting to prove his power.
Rated R. 117 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Alpha Dog :